Published in the March 24 issue of The Blood-Horse
It wasn't supposed to happen quite like this. There was nobody breathing down his neck. There was no target to home in on. All that remained up ahead was a quarter-mile of sun-baked Santa Anita dirt. With a quartet of weary rivals to his inside, Point Given, five wide and coasting, was in control of his own destiny. Atop the massive colt, Gary Stevens could sense an urgency. He felt Point Given waiting, pleading to be let loose. Turning for home in the $250,000 San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) on March 17, Stevens shortened his cross, putting the bit firmly in his colt's mouth. For Point Given, it was a cue to roll. His response was emphatic. Hello, daddy. The feeling was pure exhilaration for Stevens. First came the goosebumps. Then came a smile that stretched from Arcadia to Louisville. And as Point Given burst clear, with Stevens' arms moving rhythmically on the colt's neck, he put away much more than the San Felipe field. "Believe me," Stevens admitted, "this last month for Bob and I both...we've been a little short with other people, we've been a little short with each other. We're not taking the jokes as well as we normally do." To the credit of both Stevens and trainer Bob Baffert, the weight of anticipation during the weeks preceding Point Given's 3-year-old debut would have put even the most jaded horseman on edge. But Baffert had picked out the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe, a mid-March fixture, to kick off the colt's Kentucky Derby (gr. I) crusade, a tactic last used successfully by Charlie Whittingham, who waited until early March before unveiling Sunday Silence in 1989. For Point Given, the delayed start meant no room for error. For those calling the shots, it leaves plenty of space for criticism. "Every time he steps foot on the track, we've got to make sure that everything goes to plan," Stevens said. "We don't have any time left. There's been a lot of second-guessing going on from the public and the other racing people. Bob's showing unbelievable patience in doing what he's doing." Nevertheless, by the time Baffert tightened the girth on Point Given for the San Felipe, the pressure had reached a breaking point. The team needed a big-time confidence-boost. They got it the moment the gates opened. "I felt like I had a loaded cannon throughout the race," Stevens later said. Point Given was into the bit from the start, and though he was wide around the clubhouse turn, things were pretty quiet early. Down the backside, however, Corey Nakatani moved Skip to the Stone well off the fence, presenting Point Given with an enticing opportunity to head inside. Stevens didn't take the bait. Instead, he asked the son of Thunder Gulch for some gas, and as the far turn approached, they were wide again, continuing to avoid any traffic. With three furlongs to run, the lead was up for grabs. Point Given, however, was on cruise-control, dragging Stevens to the front. And then it was over. The acceleration was instant when Stevens gave him one hard knuckle at the top of the stretch, and Point Given stormed home to win by 2 1/4 lengths, carrying his momentum well past the finish. I Love Silver, a Silver Ghost gelding trained by Dean Greenman, turned in a strong run for second, 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Jamaican Rum. The race, unfortunately, was not without tragedy. Overbrook Farm's Gold Trader, a beautifully bred Storm Cat colt and winner of the Golden State Mile in his last start, was already well-beaten when his right hind ankle gave way in midstretch. He had to be euthanized. It was Gold Trader's fatal misstep that sobered the ecstasy following the San Felipe. While the post-race interrogation brought questions ranging from whether Point Given should be favored come Derby-time to whether he can solve California's energy crisis, Baffert remained decidedly low-key. The pressure's still on, he said, at least till the gates pop on May 5. "We can't get excited yet," he said. "It's just a prep." Stevens, like many among the 31,494 on-hand, was floored by Point Given's performance. "Before he was like Shaq. Now he's like Shaq and Kobe combined," he said back in the jocks' room, comparing Point Given to the Los Angeles Laker stars. "The horse handled everything like a complete professional. He's more mature, he's stronger, and his acceleration to me is beyond belief. All he did for me was build my confidence in what I already felt." A homebred owned by Prince Ahmed Salman's The Thoroughbred Corp., Point Given will make his next stop in the nine-furlong $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) on April 7. BIT O'THE IRISH "The thing about it, she's not speed-crazy. She really just has such a fluent stride, and that makes everything go fast. Like people have a different pace of walking. That's her pace of running--fast, without even trying." This praise was lavished by jockey Alex Solis, the man who straps in tight whenever La Feminn hits the track. The daughter of Memo was at it again on San Felipe day, turning the tables on rival Go Go with a wafer-thin score in the $107,300 Irish O'Brien Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs on grass. For La Feminn, it was a chance to expiate last month's Las Flores Handicap (gr. III), when Go Go rolled by late and handed the 5-year-old mare her lone defeat. A tardy start, according to Solis, may have made the difference in the Las Flores, but she was out like a bolt in the Irish O'Brien, with Solis keeping her on a taut leash. "Coming down the hill, I was practically water-skiing," he said. "The kind of speed she has, she's going :21, :43, and I have a really tight hold on her." Still, her searing splits (:21.70, :43.83) weren't enough to shake Go Go, who moved in at the head of the stretch. They crossed the wire as one, with La Feminn holding pat by about the length of a paper clip. Her final time, 1:11.84, was just .27 off the course mark set by Comininalittlehot in 1996. Owned by Gerald Ford's Diamond A Racing Corp., La Feminn--now six-for-seven lifetime--comes from the Richard Mandella barn. Makin' Some NoiseFinally. For the better part of the last year, Beautiful Noise has been way too close on way too many occasions. Third in a trio of graded turf events plus a heart-breaking second to Smooth Player in last fall's Las Palmas Handicap (gr. IIT), the daughter of Sunny's Halo should have been given one for sheer persistence. Instead, Beautiful Noise went out and finally pulled it off herself on March 18, withstanding Juddmonte Farms' High Walden to win the $150,000 Santa Ana Handicap (gr. IIT) at nine furlongs. Under Chris McCarron, Beautiful Noise made a Point Given-type sweep on the far turn, while High Walden was down inside, facing a roadblock. That made all the difference. The El Gran Senor filly eventually got loose and kicked into overdrive, but it was too late. Beautiful Noise was in command, and she held on by a head, stopping the timer in 1:47.27. Matiere Grise, making just her second start for trainer Darrell Vienna, was third. Bred and owned by Janis Whitham, 5-year-old Beautiful Noise has finished one-two-three in 15 of 18 starts. She is trained by Ron McAnally. The Santa Ana also gave McCarron his 13th stakes win of the meet. With four weeks remaining, he needs six more to match the track mark held by Corey Nakatani and Laffit Pincay Jr. More importantly, McCarron now stands just nine away from becoming only the seventh jockey in history to ride 7,000 winners.